There is a lot to see in Jerusalem, but one of the places that struck me most when I went there on pilgrimage was the Kidron Valley. It lies east of the Temple Mount, between the Old City and the Mount of Olives, and it is filled with ancient graves. According to our tour guide, the prophecy that the Messiah would enter the city through the East Gate of the Temple (as Jesus did on Palm Sunday) meant that Jews who could afford it were able to be buried there, the supposed epicenter of the resurrection from the dead.
Today, if you look out from where the East Gate was, almost as far as the eye can see, there is a sea of small, rectangular, above-ground tombs about two feet high and covered with flat stone slabs engraved in Hebrew. I was also told by the tour guide that these tombs are all empty. In fact, most of them had probably been used more than once, because the coverings are not airtight, and the remains of the first deceased inhabitant would have long ago turned to dust and blown away.
This got me thinking, “That’ll be me one day.” Ground to dust and scattered wherever the wind blows. Or decaying in an underground concrete vault, forgotten by all who are still living. Or some similarly grim and anonymous fate.
We all have a natural aversion, even hatred of death. But try as we might, there is absolutely nothing we can do to ameliorate the fact of our mortality. There are not many certainties in life, but this is one: you will die, and so will everyone you love, and one day everyone who ever knew you will pass away, and you will be forgotten.
Science has a name for this sad fact: the second law of thermodynamics. It states that entropy must increase over time. Entropy is just a fancy word for chaos and disorder. It means that everything is falling apart. Nothing lasts. The world is slowly coming to an end, and so are you and I.
These things are pretty depressing when you think about them, which is why we don’t think about them very often. Every once in a while, when a loved one dies, or when an accident or an illness forces us to feel just how fragile our existence really is, we are overwhelmed by the fact of our own mortality. Sometimes it awakens us to what is really important in life, and it can be the impetus for positive changes to our beliefs and our behavior. But it can also paralyze us with sadness and existential dread.
More often, though, death and decay exist in our mind as a kind of background noise. It occupies our attention the way the chatter of cable news does in the airport, present to our consciousness, but barely. Occasionally, we will glance up at the screen, an image will catch our eye, we will be transfixed for a moment, and then our group will be called and we leave it behind without a second thought.
But even background noise can disrupt a conversation if it’s loud enough. Even images on glanced-at screens can stop a train of thought if the image is shocking or alluring enough. Consciousness of death and decay, even at baseline, mostly ignorable levels, can affect us at every turn if we let it. This is why it is very important that you make your bed every morning. Have you ever had the thought, “Why make my bed? I’m just going to sleep in it again tonight.” God knows I have. But you may as well say, “Why take a shower? I’m just going to get sweaty and smelly again.” These sorts of thoughts often come in tandem with some measure of depression or spiritual acedia (not to be confused with the sorts of chemical imbalances, trauma-related depression, etc., which should always be treated in consultation with a qualified professional), which very often tempt a surrender to the futility of existence.
Things fall apart, everyone dies, nothing lasts. So why do anything? If I can even bring myself to get out of bed in the morning, why in the world would I bother putting the bedspread and pillows back in place? Who am I trying to impress? What difference could it possibly make? Well, it can make a big difference actually.
Imagine if your first action every day were a rebellion against the second law of thermodynamics. Imagine if you looked the ever-increasing chaos of the universe square in the face every morning, and said, “Not today, entropy. I’m alive, by God, and I can create order where there used to be disorder.”
Besides, we Christians believe in eternal life. Even if our bodies fall apart and pass away, there is a part of us that is immortal. It’s that part of us that allows us to see what’s really happening. Though some of our projects and plans are an exercise in futility, some of them have consequences that ring in eternity. Because we are made in God’s image, we have a kind of God’s-eye view of the world. We apprehend the parts of the world around us, just as the animals do, but we human beings can put them in the context of the wider world, and even of the meaning of existence itself.
But too often we use this God’s-eye view as a pretense for laziness or self-indulgence. Sometimes I’ll find myself sitting out on my balcony on a warm evening, reading yet another news article on my phone or watching yet another YouTube video, and I catch a glimpse of the spider in the corner of the railing meticulously weaving her web as she does every night, only to see it destroyed the following morning by the wind (or whatever else keeps the entire world from being covered in spider webs), and I think, “What if I could be as dumb as that spider? I’d probably get a lot more done.”
Our cleverness is often our downfall. Unlike the spider, we can see how big the world really is, how futile our efforts to organize the chaos of our lives is, what a massive project it is to live a productive and meaningful life, and how much better everyone else seems to be managing it than we are right now, and we are tempted to think, “What’s the point?”
Oscar Romero, the Archbishop of San Salvador who served his people to the point of martyrdom during a long and bloody civil war, once wrote, “We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realizing this. This enables us to do something, and to do it very well.”
There is freedom in these words. There is liberation in not judging all our efforts as futile before we even get started. There is peace in surrendering to what’s demanded and doing what’s possible. There is something salutary in contemplating our own mortality, as long as we don’t let it keep us from being fully alive. What we do matters, even if only for a little while.
Anyone can imagine a long stretch of time, whether it’s a thousand years from now or the few hours until the next bedtime, and use that as an excuse for procrastination or self-destructive behavior. That’s not hard to do, and it doesn’t make you a deep thinker. What’s hard is facing up to our limited existence and conscientiously fulfilling our daily obligations to God, others, and ourselves, whether we feel like it or not. The former leads to misery and despair, the latter to what the Bible calls “beatitude”—the joy experienced by the saints and angels who behold God in heaven face-to-face. How we act informs how we feel. Living an ordered life leads to having an ordered soul. And it all starts with making your bed in the morning.
This summer, make your bed every morning.